We’ve come a long way since Ned Stark left Winterfell. A Song of Ice and Fire, which once was dominated by a “clash of kings,” is now being torn apart by two queens. Their conflict is so intense that Martin gave the previous book, A Feast for Crows, to Cersei Lannister. A Dance With Dragons belongs to Daenerys Targaryen, who is younger, more beautiful, and much more sympathetic.
In the distant eastern city of Meereen, Daenerys holds court before her supplicants. Though she has freed the slaves of Meereen, Daenerys is not hailed as a hero. Instead, she faces daily demands asking her to restore the fighting pits so that slaves can earn glory killing each other once again. Lords that made their wealth on the back of slave labor now plot Daenerys’ downfall. In A Storm of Swords, Daenerys conquered cities by knowing which tool to use for which job. Now, she looks to her Unsullied, her mercenaries, and her Kingsguard for answers. And she finds that she has no tool to use in order to respond to political dissent.
However, although Daenerys’ star seems to be waning in Meereen, word of her exploits has certainly reached a number of lords in Westeros. And all of them are on a pilgrimage to serve her.
One of them is Tyrion Lannister, who may provide just the counsel that Daenerys needs. Martin wastes little time sending Tyrion east. Though Tyrion has always been a fascinating character, his sins have begun to catch up with him — to the point that it’s actually quite difficult to sympathize with him anymore. Still, Tyrion is forced to outwit knights, slavers, and mercenaries, and it’s always a joy to watch his mind at work.
We are also invited to journey to Daenerys with Victarion Greyjoy and Quentyn Martell. At some point, the characters that Martin introduces in this series became less interesting. For example, Victarion’s chapters always involve a significant amount of dramatic irony, which at times makes for slow reading in comparison with clever Tyrion’s ability to stay a step ahead not only of his captors but also his readers. Quentyn’s even worse, good for little more than fanning the flames.
Still, there are a few strong moments. Though Theon’s story is a little darker than a fantasy reader might prefer, it is from his perspective that we watch the Boltons attempt to rule the North from Winterfell. Their leadership at first seems as powerful as one of Roose Bolton’s whispered commands, but it doesn’t take long before a blizzard, a band of musicians, and a series of mysterious murders begin to unravel their rule.
Bran and Arya both make brief appearances. Though they’re on opposite sides of the ocean, it’s interesting to note how similar their arcs have become. Bran is training to become a seer while Arya is training as an Acolyte in the House of Black and White. Their stories serve as a reminder of how dazzling Martin’s fantasy can be when he takes the time to step back from political intrigue.
It’s just a disappointment that he wasn’t able to show off his fantasy skills more often in A Dance With Dragons. Although it is the longest entry in A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that the intrigues have become so complex that they require hundreds of pages just to be introduced. Aside from a startling ending, it makes for a strangely calm “dance of dragons.”